NASA is launching a car-sized rover named Curiosity to land on Mars. It contains the most advanced scientific instruments ever sent to the red planet and will spend nearly two years looking for conditions favorable for life.
"Living off the land is important," said Bret Drake with NASA.
The space agency wants to know if it can use the Martian environment to generate oxygen, fuel or water there during a human mission, allowing us to bring less.
But with current technology, it would take six months just to get astronauts there. That alone is a concern because of exposure to space radiation that can cause cancer.
"Our tolerance for long duration space flight is probably just about as long as it takes to get to Mars," Dr. John Charles with NASA said.
So NASA is trying to figure out how to both shield humans from that radiation and make the trip there and back faster.
"Radiation is a huge problem. We don't have a solution for it," said Matt Ondler with NASA.
Radiation is one issue on a list of 31 items identified by NASA as a human flight risks on a mission to Mars. Seven have already been identified by NASA as unacceptable, including:
- Radiation exposure
- Expected adverse behavior and psychiatric disorders among small groups in close quarters for long periods of time
- Reduced aerobic capacity
- Muscle mass
- Strength and endurance
- Inadequate treatment of illness or injury while there
- Inadequate nutrition
"I don't think of it as a mountain too high. I think of it as a challenge that we are going to rise to," Dr. Charles said.
They're challenges scientists have 20 or so years to address. The space agency is hoping to land the first human on Mars in the mid-2030s.
They're already kicking around radiation protection ideas; maybe infuse the crew capsule with a special plastic or surrounding it with water -- maybe even using electromagnets to deflect radiation.